Going for holiday gold

THIS SUMMER’S London 2012 Olympic Games poses the greatest operational and security challenge the city has faced since the Second World War.

Going for holiday gold

In a typical summer, London’s streets, facilities, and transport system are packed to capacity with tourists from May onwards.

This year will add an extra two million visitors to the mix, and while it’s sure to be a challenge for resident and tourist alike, the atmosphere promises to be electrifying once the whole shebang kicks off.

The Games being held here means that for the first time in possibly a generation, the host city is easily accessible for Irish sports fan. If you’re lucky enough to have tickets for events, you’ve likely been planning for the trip for quite some time.

But for those deciding to make a last minute hop over the waters just to be in town for the festivities, here are a few tips that should help you on your way:

Last minute accommodation options

Sorting accommodation is always one of the most expensive — and headache-inducing — aspects of visiting London, this summer even more so.

Chances are that decent and affordable hotels — particularly near the stadium in Stratford — are well-booked up for the entirety of July and August. But there are still options available for the last minute bookers.

You could always look to crash in London residents’ homes and flats in some sort of couch-surfing style arrangement.

Scour websites like CouchSurfing.org, or Gumtree and Craigslist for more informal options. There are sure to be Londoners who would be only too happy to get out of the city for the duration of the Games, so house-swapping could also be worth a try. Look at a site like www.homeexchange.com for ideas.

Enterprising agents are also offering their services to find short-let lodgings — one such option is Hamptons www.hamptons.co.uk

Don’t discount the university halls of residence either, which are usually rented out during the summer for between £30-£50 a night. They’re likely to be of hostel/budget hotel standard, but could be a real lifesaver if you’re stuck. Imperial College, UCL, LSE, and University of Westminster might be good bets.

Camp-sites and caravan parks are another way around the problem. Check www.visitlondon.com for listings.

Plus the company Camping at the Games claims to have campsites available in the grounds of sports clubs in greater London for £10 a night. See campingatthegames.com

You don’t have to stay in London. Consider a spot like Brighton on the south coast, which is very near to Gatwick airport, and is within an hour of London via rail.

Transport

I’m not going to sugarcoat it: the Underground will very likely be hell during the Olympics.

Transport for London (TFL), which operates the Tube, has been warning Londoners that there will be delays of at least 30 minutes at key stations such as Bank and London Bridge in order to get on the Central and Jubilee Lines, which serve Stratford.

Advance preparation is a good idea. Know what routes you’ll want or need to take, and be familiar with the Oyster card system (www.tfl.gov.uk/oyster).

I’d strongly recommend regularly checking the website www.getaheadofthegames.com to keep up to speed on potential trouble spots.

Allow plenty of time to get to and from where you’re going, and to remember that much of central London is actually easily navigable by foot.

Time and again visitors make the mistake in thinking they need to get the Tube from, say, the South Bank to Oxford Circus, when, in fact, that’s a quick 20 minute walk.

When using the Tube, it makes things run a lot smoother — and you’re less likely to irk London residents — if you respect the basic etiquette of Underground travel.

Stand on the right when using escalators up and down from platforms, do not under any circumstances just stop at the bottom of the moving stairs, and if possible avoid lugging huge suitcases and children’s buggies around stations and onto trains during peak times.

Consider also availing of the Barclays Cycle Hire scheme (’The Boris Bikes’), where you can simply pay at a machine at the docking station with a credit card (£1 for 24 hours or £5 for seven days). Get briefed on the system in advance at www.tfl.gov.uk

Don’t forget there are also buses and river transport, such as the Thames Clipper (www.thamesclippers.com/) and City Cruises (www.citycruises.com/) to get around.

If you have a Smartphone, download apps like TubeMap to keep abreast of delays and live-updates on the Underground, and Bus Checker for get real-time bus schedules and updates.

Where to watch the Games

For those without tickets, there are a few “live sites” that will be showing every major medal event, as well as the opening and closing ceremonies of the Games on large screens.

The most accessible sites within central London are in Hyde Park, Victoria Park, and Potters Field at London Bridge, which will be open from 11am every day during the Games.

Outside of central, there is Waltham Forest in Walthanstow (at the end of northbound Victoria line), and at Woolwich in Arsenal.

The sites are free to use — though there will be some attractions with entry fees — and you can just walk in on the day to avail of them.

However, the sites are subject to capacity, and most guaranteed entry tickets appear to be booked out.

Entry will be on a first come, first serve basis, so it’d be advisable to get to the sites early in the day. See www.btlondonlive.com

Where to see the Irish athletes

Tickets for our best-shot events like boxing are long sold out, but visitors can watch other Irish athletes competing around the city, and all free of charge.

For instance, Rob Heffernan takes on the 20k walk on Saturday, Aug 4 (starting at 5pm) and then the 50k a week later (9am start), while Olive Loughnane does the women’s 20k walk on Aug 11 too (5pm).

In both cases, the area around Constitution Hill and Green Park is ticket-free and a great vantage point to take in the action.

Meanwhile, triathlon hopefuls Aileen Morrison and Gavin Noble will be competing on Aug 4 (at 9am) and 11 (11.30am) respectively, and the free areas to observe are at Serpentine Lake in Hyde Park, as well as Constitution Hill and the Queen Victoria Memorial.

As for cycling, Dan Martin, Nicolas Roche and David McCann are going for gold on Jul 28, and most of the 270k route doesn’t require tickets.

However, it will be insanely busy in all spots in central London so prepare to be up early to stake out a spot.

I’d recommend hitting up Chelsea and Kensington for a view.

The men’s and women’s marathons take place a week apart (Aug 5 and 12), with Mark Kenneally, Linda Byrne, Ava Hutchinson and Catriona Jennings all flying the Irish flag.

The best spots to catch the action for free are Westminister Bridge, St Paul’s Cathedral in the City of London, the Tower of London, and the Victoria Embankment.

Lastly, the sailing competition in this year’s Olympics takes place in Dorset, located about 100 miles from London. The area is well served by public transport, but I’d strongly advise booking early if you haven’t already.

South West Trains (www.southwesttrains.co.uk/) operate out of London, but the earlier you book, the more you save.

Irish athletes, like our sole female sailor Analise Murphy, are competing in five sailing races between Jul 30 and Aug 7. There is a main ticketed area, but watching from shore will be free, but, again, likely very busy.

Where to eat and drink

East London is not just home to the Olympics; it’s also the buzziest, and certainly the coolest part of the city in which to socialise right now.

My favourite spots in the region are the hipster-friendly Breakfast Club on Hoxton Square in Shoreditch (www.thebreakfastclubcafes.com), and Song Que, a Vietnamese restaurant on Kingsland Road (worth a visit just for the beef in betel leaves alone).

For something a bit different pub-wise, I like the speakeasy Calloo Callay (www.calloohcallaybar.com) on Rivington Street, which is accessed by walking through a giant wardrobe (order the ‘Island Currency’ cocktail and thank me later).

Also, the stylish Boundary roof bar just off of Shoreditch High Street is very popular.

In Central London, safe food bets are the Busaba Eathai chain in Soho and Leicester Square, Dean Street Townhouse in Soho for classier though affordable fare, and Jamie Oliver’s Italian restaurant in Covent Garden.

Plus, for the caffeine lover, a visit to Monmouth Coffee on Monmouth Street or at the Borough Market is essential.

What to see and do

The Cultural Olympiad is running an ambitious arts and cultural programme in London as part of the Games, so have a look for full listings at www.london2012.com

In general I would advise against the typical “tourist things” during the summer (if you must do one, opt for the London Eye, but book queue-jumper passes at www.londoneye.com).

One of my favourite things to do is on a Sunday. Start off in Spitalfields near Liverpool Street Station, and then wander up through Brick Lane to the Columbia Road flower market.

And if the weather is good head to one of the parks with a picnic and people-watch for hours.

My ones of choice are London Fields (in the Olympic catchment area of Hackney), and St James’ Park.

You will most likely want to catch a show when in London too. The good news is that theatres will likely be offering discounted tickets in order to compete against the crowd-diverting attractions of the Olympics.

There has also been talk that many theatres will offer cheap tickets (as low as £10) in order to entice commuters away from travelling on the Tube during peak evening times.

My picks for shows running here right now are Matilda, the award-winning stage adaption of Roald Dahl’s novel (www.matildathemusical.com), and the exhilarating, tear-jerking Billy Elliot (www.billyelliotthemusical.com).

There’s also buzz at the moment about Posh, a satire of the Tory-dominated Bullingdon Club (www.atgtickets.com), and, for the summer that’s in it, a stage transfer of the movie Chariots of Fire, set during the 1924 Olympics. (www.chariotsoffireonstage.co.uk).

FYI: the website www.lastminute.com can be great for bagging cheap theatre tickets, as long as you’re not too fussy about sitting far away or with a restricted view.

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